Derry, Northern Ireland

Derry, Northern Ireland
A book I'm working on is set in this town.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Mark Twin's letter to Walt Whitman

This shows just how great a writer Mark Twain was, a simple letter written to Walt Whitman on the occasion of his 70th birthday.  Wow.
Hartford, May 24/89

To Walt Whitman:

You have lived just the seventy years which are greatest in the world’s history & richest in benefit & advancement to its peoples. These seventy years have done much more to widen the interval between man & the other animals than was accomplished by any five centuries which preceded them.

What great births you have witnessed! The steam press, the steamship, the steel ship, the railroad, the perfected cotton-gin, the telegraph, the phonograph, the photograph, photo-gravure, the electrotype, the gaslight, the electric light, the sewing machine, & the amazing, infinitely varied & innumerable products of coal tar, those latest & strangest marvels of a marvelous age. And you have seen even greater births than these; for you have seen the application of anesthesia to surgery-practice, whereby the ancient dominion of pain, which began with the first created life, came to an end in this earth forever; you have seen the slave set free, you have seen the monarchy banished from France, & reduced in England to a machine which makes an imposing show of diligence & attention to business, but isn’t connected with the works. Yes, you have indeed seen much — but tarry yet a while, for the greatest is yet to come. Wait thirty years, & then look out over the earth! You shall see marvels upon marvels added to these whose nativity you have witnessed; & conspicuous above them you shall see their formidable Result — Man at almost his full stature at last! — & still growing, visibly growing while you look. In that day, who that hath a throne, or a gilded privilege not attainable by his neighbor, let him procure his slippers & get ready to dance, for there is going to be music. Abide, & see these things! Thirty of us who honor & love you, offer the opportunity. We have among us 600 years, good & sound, left in the bank of life. Take 30 of them — the richest birth-day gift ever offered to poet in this world — & sit down & wait. Wait till you see that great figure appear, & catch the far glint of the sun upon his banner; then you may depart satisfied, as knowing you have seen him for whom the earth was made, & that he will proclaim that human wheat is more than human tares, & proceed to organize human values on that basis.

Mark Twain

I haven't much else to say, since this was a rough couple of days and I'm still recovering.  But I do want to note -- I've finished the stories in "Requiem for the Departed" and, aside from one that works the legend of Selkies into its heartbreaking tale of revenge and justice in 6th Century Hibernia ("The Sea Is Not Full", which also offers a hint at the beginnings of St. Patrick) none of them impressed.  In fact, a few of them seemed more like outlines for novels than short-stories, especially the last one -- "The Life Business", that tells its story rather than lets it unfold and jams in WAY too much for a short -- while the rest were just bland and not really believable, even within their own worlds.  These writers would never get a letter like that from Mark Twain.

Unfortunately, Whitman only took a bit less than three of the years offered so generously my Mark Twain.  More's the pity.


Writer said...

Amazing letter, Kyle. I'm sorry you've had a few rough days. Email me if you want to talk. :)

JamTheCat said...

Rough physically, that's all. I helped in the load-out and shipping of the New York Book Fair, meaning I was at a warehouse by JFK until 3 in the morning sorting out which dealers go to what part of the world, then came back at 10am to finish the job so everyone could be gone-gone by Tuesday since next week begins a HUGE slate of holidays in Europe. So it's just finding excuses to relax and not think. But thanks for the offer.